Wednesday night's showdown on South Beach just got a lot more interesting.
The second and final meeting this season between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat has all the makings of a big game. Thunder center Kendrick Perkins is now healthy and in his rightful place as the starter. And the Heat has won three straight after losing five in a row.
With 15 games remaining following the nationally televised game on ESPN, there is no better game to use as a measuring stick for the Thunder to judge where it is as it gears up for the season's home stretch.
“We definitely got to try to make a statement to see where we're at against one of the top teams in basketball,” said Thunder forward Kevin Durant. “It should be fun. We're looking forward to it. We just got to relish the opportunity to get better.”
The Heat won the first meeting, 108-103, in Oklahoma City, mainly because the Thunder couldn't corral a defensive rebound in the final minutes. Heat guard Eddie House hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with 22.2 seconds remaining and later added a pair of free throws to clinch the victory, marking one of the few times Miami has executed well down the stretch in a close game this season.
The Heat has the league's top scoring duo in LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, whose combined average is 51.7 points. The Thunder possesses the third-ranked scoring duo in Durant and Russell Westbrook, who combine to average 50.7 points. James and Wade combined for 55 points in the first meeting, while Durant and Westbrook combined to score 54 points.
“It's going to be tough, especially in their building. But we're looking forward to that challenge,” Durant said. “They've been playing well lately after that little stretch they had.”
BEATING THE BAD TEAMS
In its past six games against sub-.500 teams, the Thunder has won by an average of 22.3 points. The closest victory was a 10-point win against Detroit last Friday. The Thunder is now 20-3 against sub-.500 teams. Only San Antonio (26-1) and Miami (28-2) have a better mark against bad teams.
“It means we're focused,” said Thunder forward Nick Collison. “We're taking care of business. There's been stretches this year where we've kind of played to the score. We've gotten up 10 and relaxed and let a team back in it. We've been able to avoid that. I think we're a little more focused and our guys are a little bit sharper coming into these games.”
After making his debut with the Thunder on Monday at Washington, Perkins admitted he had a few butterflies even though he's played on a championship team.
“You always have butterflies,” Perkins said. “You want to go out there and do well. But once I got out there I was cool.”
Perkins said returning against the Wizards, the second worst team in the NBA, was in part by design.
“I think you do got to get your feet wet a little bit before you just come back and feel like you're going to play against a team like Miami,” Perkins said. “Hopefully, now we go into Miami with the right mindset and do what we got to do.”
HIGH PRAISE FOR WESTBROOK
Even before Westbrook shredded his team for 18 points, 12 assists, four rebounds and four steals, Wizards coach Flip Saunders had high praise for the Thunder's point guard.
When a reporter attempted to look ahead to the Wizards' game against Chicago on Tuesday and the point guard matchup between John Wall and Derrick Rose before Monday's game between the Thunder and Wizards, Saunders quickly turned his attention to Westbrook.
“You can't worry about Rose right now,” Saunders said of Wall. “He's got to worry about Westbrook, who I think is the best all-around guard in our league. When you look at everything he does, from a standpoint of defensively, creating steals, rebounding the basketball, being able to score in the open floor (and) athletically.”
PERKINS CALLS OUT PAU
At his introductory news conference in Oklahoma City, Perkins said he disliked “everything” about Los Angeles Lakers forward Pau Gasol. Apparently, the Thunder's big man went a step further in an interview with ESPN.
According to ESPN's Sam Alipour, Perkins called Gasol soft, while also taking shots at Lakers coach Phil Jackson.
“I don't like a lot of the Lakers,” Perkins is quoted as saying. “I don't like Phil Jackson. Phil is very arrogant.”
“Pau is soft; trying to be something he's not,” Perkins is quoted as saying. “He's not a tough guy but he tries to be just because he's on a team with Kobe (Bryant). Kobe tries to bring out his toughness but he's still soft.”
DURANT REACHES MINOR MILESTONE
With 32 points Monday, Durant has now scored at least 30 points in 100 games as a pro. He becomes the fifth-fastest player since the NBA/ABA merger in 1976-77 to reach 100 career 30-point games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Durant has played 298 career games.
Miami forward Chris Bosh on Kevin Durant calling him a “fake tough guy” after the two teams last met — “All that stuff is squared away. That was in the heat of the moment. He made some comments after the game probably when he was upset. That's no big deal. We talked about it. It's pretty much over and done with.”